One of the most unlikely successes in the music world in recent years has been the art-rock ensemble Antony & The Johnsons, the New York band led by Antony Hegarty. Redefining the phrase ‘alternative music’, the band have proven that it’s still possible to come out of left field and succeed commercially and critically without playing Disney pop or hip-hop. Bassist Jeffrey Langston holds down a deceptively economical groove with the band, whose music revolves around unpredictable textures and piano-driven atmospherics. We couldn’t help but be curious about how exactly a bassist fits into a band as unusual as this one…

“It’s a fantastic band to be in from a bass player’s point of view,” Langston enthuses. “It’s a very different approach to music than any other playing situation. Silence is emphasized a lot more. The way that the songs are written is that Antony comes to the rehearsal with the chords ready, and then we as a group arrange how we’re going to play the songs live. He’s very directive, but it’s a collaboration, so he might hear a part in his head and sing it to you, which you can then use. He has a symphonic approach, with different parts for each instrument, so for example I play piccolo parts using false harmonics high up. I get to do a lot of interesting stuff like that. I get a lot of freedom and we present a lot of ideas for us all to bash back and forth. It’s a tremendous group of musicians, and it’s an honor to play with them. It’s never a case of ‘Let’s just play the roots’ or ‘Let’s just play chops’.”

Talking of chops, Langston has them in abundance, although he doesn’t deploy them as lavishly as you might expect. “It’s a classic story,” he explains. “I was playing guitar in a band when I was younger, and I was totally self-taught: I didn’t even know any chords, really. Our bass player decided to move on and I was demoted to bass! But in fact I’d been playing bass-lines on the guitar all along, so playing bass felt very natural and I loved it right away. I knew that it would be the path I would pursue. After four or five years I had a sort of epiphany: I realized that if I was going to be any good at the instrument I’d really have to start practicing and pushing through that resistance, which led to a two-month stretch where I got a really consistent three- to four-hour practice done every day. After that I was a much better player in many more musical situations. Then I went to the University of Oregon’s music school, although I was an electric player rather than an upright player. That led me to the Berklee College of Music in 1992, over in Boston. Did I have a mullet? Actually I went the other way and shaved my head and grew a goatee, just to contrast things a bit… I joined Antony in 2001. They needed a bass player, and their drummer recommended me and I’ve been there ever since.”

Langston’s influences are reflected in his choice of gear, he tells us. “When I was first starting out I was a big John Entwistle fan: I loved his tone and the bass solo in ‘My Generation’ and the idea that the bass player’s role could be a little more exciting. Then it was the classic jazz players: Jaco and Stanley and Marcus. I also loved John Paul Jones’s note choice and tone. I went through a couple of really good basses that I’m sad that I got rid of: I had a great Fender Musicmaster, the short-scale one: it had nylon strings which sounded great, although it was a very unusual tone. Then I evolved from that to a beautiful Rickenbacker 4001 and then a Telecaster bass, and then a P-Bass, and in 1990 I bought an Alembic Essence, and that’s really been my primary bass since then. I was a John Entwistle guy, which was probably what went off in my head when I saw the Alembic in the store. It had a real castle of a bridge. It’s a little different from most basses: I wanted something classic but a bit unusual, which is what it is.”

Antony & The Johnsons’ ride to the top of the more unorthodox critic’s must-listen list has been meteoric, and indeed unexpectedly so, observes. Langston. “I thought we were going to be peripheralized critical darlings: I never thought we’d have the exposure that we’ve had,” he admits. Ask him about the band’s relationship with mentor Lou Reed and he says, “I found him rather intimidating, so I kept my mouth shut in case I said anything stupid!” We could all learn from that...

Info: www.antonyandthejohnsons.com.

THUMB TALK

You won’t hear any slapping from Langston… but he loves it anyway

“I’ve got my slapping together: I was a big Les Claypool guy for a while and I was learning bass when the Red Hot Chili Peppers were coming up. Faith No More and that kind of bass sound were really big in Eugene, Oregon, where I grew up. I’m always urged never to do it by the other band members though, so I do it during soundcheck just to act up and get their attention. There’s a lot of bad slapping out there, sadly.”

SIDE ISSUES

Also on the Langston agenda

“Right now I have a couple of long-term projects on the go. I’m always trying to improve the fundamentals, so I bought an upright bass after our last tour. That’s been something I’ve been trying to learn. I’m also developing a 22-minute solo bass set and I’m looking to record it in the next few months. I’ll probably play some solo shows around here to see how if feels and if I want to move forward. I’ll never do that solo with the main band, though.”

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